* Ryan's budget would slash spending and taxes
* Democrats hope voters will be spooked by plan
By Andy Sullivan
JANESVILLE, Wis., March 25 Republican U.S.
Representative Paul Ryan's budget-cutting vision has made him a
hero to conservatives across the country. It's less popular in
As Ryan's proposal to slash taxes and spending started to
move through Congress last week, local officials in this humble
Rust Belt city scrambled to recover from last year's cutbacks.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had
clawed back $344,000 from the city's affordable-housing fund, so
the Janesville Community Development Authority voted to drain
its reserves to keep its 525 families in the program.
The city won't have to put anybody out on the street,
probably. But there is no cushion left.
Ryan has called for belt-tightening to head off fiscal
disaster in the years to come, but Janesville is already
familiar with austerity.
There's less money for job training, health clinics and the
food bank; higher property taxes and higher car fees; larger
school class sizes, crumbling roads, fewer firefighters.
"It's like being in a fight against five or six people.
Every time you turn around you're getting punched from a
different direction," said City Council President Russ Steeber.
In the 14 years since voters in the southeast corner of
Wisconsin first sent him to Congress, Ryan has emerged as
perhaps the country's foremost fiscal conservative. Only 42, he
is frequently mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick.
His latest budget plan, unveiled Tuesday, will serve as a
rallying cry for Republicans as they try to win control of the
White House and both chambers of Congress in the Nov. 6
Democrats hope voters will be spooked by Ryan's proposal to
partially privatize Medicare, the popular health plan for
"When people sent Paul Ryan to Washington, D.C., they
certainly didn't send him there to end Medicare," said Democrat
Rob Zerban, who hopes to unseat Ryan in the fall.
Ryan's district, which encompasses struggling cities as well
as affluent lake resorts and blue-collar Milwaukee suburbs, has
grown more Democratic in recent years.
Though voters here backed Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008
presidential election, Ryan has continued to win re-election by
wide margins and Democratic officials say it will be a challenge
to unseat him this year. The Cook Political Report, a
nonpartisan tip sheet, rates the race "solidly Republican."
Ryan has maintained close ties to this city of 60,000 even
as his national celebrity has grown. He returns most weekends to
spend time with his wife and three young children and local
leaders say they see him regularly out and about.
"He is extremely plugged in," said John Beckford, president
of Forward Janesville, a local business group. As in Washington,
he is widely admired for tackling the country's long-term debt.
Though Democrats have hammered Ryan on Medicare and tax cuts
that would benefit the wealthy, they have devoted less attention
to other proposed spending cuts.
Under Ryan's plan, the government would spend $3 trillion
less than Obama over the coming 10 years on domestic programs.
That's one-third less for Medicaid, the health plan for the
poor; one-quarter less for transportation, and one-third less
for education. Tax breaks and food and housing assistance for
the poor would shrink by 16 percent.
His budget, like the rival vision outlined by Obama in
February, has no chance of becoming law as long as Democrats and
Republicans split power. But no matter who controls Washington
after the November elections, continued austerity is likely to
be the rule under a 10-year, $1 trillion deficit-reduction plan
passed last year.
Even relatively modest reductions hit hard in Janesville,
which is still digging out from the closure of a General Motors
plant four years ago that left 4,000 people out of work.
Businesses are pushing to widen Interstate 90, an effort
that would rely on federal money. Southern Wisconsin Regional
Airport also is counting on federal dollars in the next 10 years
to cover 90 percent of a planned $5 million runway upgrade.
Federal job training grants helped many of the laid-off GM
workers learn new skills at Blackhawk Technical College, and one
in five students there currently rely on federal student loans
or grants, according to a school official.
Ryan's proposed Medicaid cuts would strain local hospitals,
which already lose money on every patient they see under the
"Our mission is to provide health services to the
communities where we have a presence," said Rich Gruber, a vice
president at Mercy Health System. "If I don't have a financial
margin, I'm never going to be able to accomplish that mission."
Janesville was hammered by the 2008-2009 recession. The GM
plant closure sent shock waves through the ecosystem of parts
suppliers and other employers that depended on the massive
facility for business.
Food banks and other local charities struggled to keep up as
demand swelled and private donations plummeted. The city's
rental-assistance program, funded by federal money, stopped
accepting new applicants two years ago.
Things are looking up lately. The unemployment rate has
fallen to 8.3 percent, still well above the statewide average
but well below the March 2009 peak of 13.9 percent. A startup
company recently announced plans to build an $80 million
medical-isotope plant, and hospitals are expanding.
Still, enormous challenges remain as families struggle to
climb back into the middle class.
One in 25 school children was homeless at some point last
year, and half qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Manufacturers are hiring again, but many of the jobs pay $9 per
hour, far short of the $20 to $30 hourly wage paid by GM.
Many workers don't have the communications or math skills
that better-paying jobs demand, and federal job training funds
are projected to shrink 6 percent to 12 percent in the coming
fiscal year. There are 8,000 fewer jobs now than there were a
"At one point in time I probably would have said we need to
scale back government. Now I see people that are at a loss, they
don't know where to turn," said Robert Borremans, the head of
the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, which
oversees job-training efforts in Janesville.
Not everyone shares this view. Several local business
leaders said they agreed with Ryan's argument that lower taxes
and fewer regulations, rather than continued federal spending,
would get the economy moving.
Bill Sodemann had to lay off half of his employees at his
telecommunications firm during the height of the recession. As
head of the Janesville school board, he's made painful decisions
there as well.
The school district had to cut 110 of its 1,400 staff
positions last year, raise class sizes and hike fees for high
school sports after the state legislature slashed its
contribution. More painful cuts loom next year.
'LIKE A DRUG DEALER'
Federal contributions also fell last year by 33 percent as
stimulus money dried up. Sodemann says the burst of federal
money only postponed the district's day of reckoning.
"They give you money and hook you on a program and say, 'OK,
now it's gone, you fend for it," he said. "It's kind of like a
drug dealer, I guess."
Sodemann points to a new pre-kindergarten program as an
additional drain on resources. Parents who want to put their
kids in the program should pay for it themselves, he said.
"Just because it's beneficial doesn't mean government should
pay for it," he said.
Several miles south of Sodemann's downtown office,
4-year-old children enrolled in the program stream off a
playground into a cheery day-care facility run by a nonprofit
group, Community Action Inc.
Early-childhood programs like these have been shown to boost
school performance and reduce crime. Federal subsidies cover
more than two-thirds of the program, which allows parents to
enter the workforce rather than remain at home and mired in
poverty, nonprofit officials say.
Community Action officials choose their words carefully when
asked about Ryan. He's willing to listen to their concerns, they
say, even as he makes clear that his focus is on federal fiscal
issues rather than the immediate needs of his community.
"It's a question that doesn't come to the top of his list,"
said Lisa Forseth, Community Action's executive director.
Donna Hays, a nurse practitioner who runs the nonprofit's
women's health center, is more direct as she puts on her lab
coat and stethoscope.
"We sometimes have to ask him if he remembers where he came
from," Hays said.